Lewis, in his commentary on the psalms, deals early on with one of most frequent confusions found in scripture and especially in the psalter. That is, the call for “judgement”.
If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s “judgement”. The “Day” of Judgement is “that day of wrath”, that dreadful day”. We pray for God to deliver us “in the hour of death and at the day of judgement”. Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors. This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord Himself; especially to the terrible parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the “Goats” are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did – perhaps never dreamed of doing.
It is therefore with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgements of God. They talk like this: “O let the nations rejoice and be glad, for thou shalt judge the folk righteously”, “Let the field be joyful…all the trees of the wood shall rejoice before the Lord, for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth”. Judgement is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it.
The solution to this puzzle is not difficult when we consider that the Jewish writers were nearly always speaking about “judgement” as it occurs in a court of law. It was assumed the judgement would be GOOD. The problem was getting INTO the court in the first place. Out in the world, you were subject to abuse by the rich and powerful. But if you could just get your case to be heard – just get your foot in the door of the court – the judge would put everything to right. You WANTED judgement because you weren’t getting it where you were. You were a slave and shouldn’t be – the judge would free you. Your house was stolen by a shyster – the judge would order it be given back. Someone was telling lies about you and there was nothing you could do about it – the judge would have those lies exposed and the speaker’s mouths shut. Everything was screwed up . If only you could get the judge’s attention, things would get straightened out.
Today, someone who “judges” another pronounces some kind of hateful disapproval of another. The condemnation is frequently implied to be unsubstantiated. That is, the judgement is assumed to be without reason, without logic, and sans love. A “righteous” judgement seems like an oxymoron, at least how it used on the street today in the west. The realm of formal law of course keeps the meaning more or less intact, but that is largely roped off from the public square.
When I was a young man, I was invited to a bible study down the hall from where I had just begun to live at the university. I decided to show up and discovered the text for the night was Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that ye not be judge.”) For the next 45 minutes I listened as the circle of attendees nodded their head and acknowledged that judging people was very, very bad – something one should never do, and something that Jesus thought was definitely not cool. We ended with a prayer asking Jesus to help us not judge other people. I bit my tongue from bringing up the fact that some context was worth considering.
Well, it turns out this particular bible study was run by liberal PCUSA Presbyterians, and what they meant by “don’t judge” was “don’t you dare say anything bad about what I’m doing”. What were they doing? It pretty much boiled down to having sex with a wide variety of different people, some even of the same gender as themselves. This was obviously a favorite passage of theirs. I’m afraid I didn’t visit that gathering again and eventually made other friends. For them, judgement was a thing to be feared and hated, like a volcano erupting in your back yard or an alien invasion. Jesus was good because it didn’t seem like he judged people in the modern sense. At least, he seemed to say nice stuff to people that goody-two-shoes were always looking down on. In a sense, they desired God because he DIDN’T judge them, contra the world who always did.
This is completely and utterly backwards from everything found in scripture, from the law to the prophets, to the gospels and the epistles. God judges the freaking heck out of the earth. In John’s revelation, his judgement is utter and total and powerful and crushing and indescribable. Sometimes He withholds judgement for a while, but it’s just pent up waiting to explode. “The day of the Lord great and very terrible. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11). The catch is, the judgement is GOOD, and the stuff you are subject to now – without a judge at hand? BAD.
For the one who hates or fears judgement, what you have now is the best things can get and your life goal, your striving, your activism, is to minimize judgement. You are glad to get a raise because now you can buy some nicer clothes and not have people give you strange looks at the office. You rejoice when the supreme court says it’s OK for you and your lesbian lover to get married. You throw a big party! One less person judging you. You are incrementally freer now! Relief. Love. Peace here and now.
For the one who loves judgement and yearns for the Lord’s coming, everything around them is transient and passing away – their chronic back pain, their dead-end job, their broken marriage. Maybe the scope is larger in some people’s minds. Everything is wrong. Heck, maybe even the entire nation is wrong – run by lying money grubbers. Maybe all the Earth and the environment is being trashed. Who will deliver us? A righteous judge who will come down from heaven and kick evil’s ass so hard it will never show it’s face in town again. That’s who. That is where our hope lies.
For one, the second advent of the Lord is an end of judging. A flooding over of all existing hate. Love wins. For the other, the second advent of the Lord is the zenith of judgement, the conquering of all evil so that only love remains permanently. A great white table, and a great white throne.
These are both, in their own way, comforting and hopeful images of God and the eschaton. The problem is, only one of them is found in scripture, and it’s remarkably consistent. The other idea comes from somewhere else entirely and has had mild success in the last century in appropriating some of the words of Christ toward it’s end. But in the heaven, we find a great white throne, not a great white table. And he who sits on the throne is our bread of life, given freely to even the beggars with not a single good thing to their name. Would that he come and make us rightful sons and daughters again.